Monday, August 9, 2010

Searching for Mindfulness in the Brain

In the new journal Mindfulness, Fletcher, Schoendorff, and Hayes, researchers well known within the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) community, published an article about refining the approach towards using neuro-imaging techniques (i.e., brain scans) to study mindfulness.

The authors point out some of the flaws in the current literature, such as the lack of precision about definitions of mindfulness and accompanying processes, and difficulty measuring subjective reports of different psychological states. The authors advocate greater precision in understanding and delineating the different processes that may underlie mindfulness before subjecting mindfulness to neurobiological study.

As they authors admit, the lens through which they seek to understand mindfulness is the behaviorist approach ACT. They readily acknowledge that this is but one way to understand mindfulness. Their main point is that some clearly defined model of mindfulness, whatever that may be, is necessary before a true neurological study of mindfulness can be undertaken. Otherwise, inquiry may lead to sloppy science.

I applaud the authors for this undertaking. Although I think there is a great deal of value in neuroscience, there is such a mystique surrounding it (e.g., “It’s the brain, so it must be true!”), that I think some of the methodological limitations get overlooked. For example, as with any research technique, there is random error in measurement. The authors note an amusing study by Bennett and colleagues (2009) that found the brain area of dead salmon reliably lit up when the fish were shown emotional scenes. It’s highly unlikely the dead fish were having an emotional reaction! Yet this is precisely the problem we face when we stick people in a scanner and ask them to meditate without first clearly defining the task (e.g., What does it mean to meditate?), and what we’re looking for.

Although it’s not my main area of training, I find the neuroscience research on mindfulness and meditation pretty interesting. I think there is a great deal of potential in this particular avenue of exploration. However, I agree wholeheartedly with Fletcher and colleagues that there should be a movement towards greater scientific rigor with studies executed in a more systematic fashion.

For Full Citation:

Fletcher, L. B., Schoendorff, B., & Hayes, S. C. (2010). Searching for Mindfulness in the Brain: A Process-Oriented Approach to Examining the Neural Correlates of Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 1(1), 41-63.

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